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Reel Education

Documentaries, Biopics, and Reality Television


Jacqueline Bach

Reel Education is the first single-authored book to bring together the theoretical and practical considerations of teaching cinematic texts about education that claim a degree of verisimilitude. Given the recent influx of documentaries, biopics, and reality television shows about education, new theoretical frameworks are required to understand how these productions shape public conversations about educational issues. Such texts, with their claims to represent real-life experiences, have a particular power to sway audiences who may uncritically accept these stories as offering “the truth” about what happens in schools. Since all texts, whatever their truth-claims may be, are grounded in specific ideologies, those in the fields of humanities, education, and media and communication studies must pay attention to how these films and television shows are constructed and for what purposes. This book provides an analysis of documentaries, biopics, and reality television, examining the construction of the genres, the explicit and latent ideologies they contain, and the ways in which students and faculty might critically engage with them in classrooms.
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Chapter 3. “You Know that Kids Are Getting a Really Crappy Education Now”: Teaching Documentaries through Interpretive, Ideological, and Activist Approaches


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Teaching Documentaries through Interpretive, Ideological, and Activist Approaches

For the past three summers, I’ve shown the documentary Waiting for Superman (Guggenheim, 2010) in my secondary school curriculum course as a way to expand our discussion of school choice and teacher accountability, both of which have been “hot” topics in education for the past several years. The quotation in the title for this chapter comes from that documentary; the words were spoken by Michelle Rhee, who is featured in this film as the chancellor of Washington, DC, schools. Her statement, “You wake up every morning and you know that kids are getting a really crappy education now,” refers to the state of public schools in Washington, DC. The filmmakers, in order to show her as an agent of change, feature her for approximately 10 minutes of the film, following her from schools to her office to her car as she makes what appear to be harsh decisions that are designed to significantly improve the schools in DC. The camera captures her firing principals, closing schools, and battling with teacher unions. The highlighting of these decisions suggests that the filmmakers believe they will improve the “crappy education” students will get. Because documentaries about schools imply ways to improve education, those of us who use them in the classroom should consider how our university students might interrogate the ways those suggestions are...

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